Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Avengers Infinity War

Thanos (Josh Brolin) shakes the Avengers to their core, as well as the audience.

For the past ten years, Marvel has made (for the most part) solid entertaining movies. It has also been that long since The Dark Knight, which has always been the best superhero movie. Few movies have been any kind of a threat (Iron Man, The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther). Now comes the cream of the crop, Avengers: Infinity War. In my mind, The Dark Knight is still number one, but it has been shaken by a solid silver place finisher.

I will be brief, for I would fear of any form of spoilers (there will be none here). If you have seen any of the Marvel films (I know you have), you know there have been six infinity stones in the universe. They are being hunted by Thanos (Josh Brolin), in his quest to bring balance to the cosmos. This is done with the infinity gauntlet, which he can use to wipe out half of all living things, with a snap of his fingers.

That is as far as I will go. Standing in his way are Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Captain America (Chris Evans),….ok, basically everyone in every Marvel movie except for Ant-Man and Hawkeye (that was easier).

Remember Spider-Man 3, when there were too many characters and story lines? Well, Infinity War has only one real story line and one villain. Nevertheless, all the star players are not only here, but needed. Afterall, that is how hard it is to defeat a guy like Thanos. The first ten minutes alone prove my point.

Credit also must be given to directors Anthony and Joe Russo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Each character is given same amount of screen time, but the right amount of it. Kudos to the actors for remembering the old rule: no small parts, only small actors.

Speaking of which, there is even a role for Peter Dinklage. I mean that transition not as a put down joke, but from the heart. There is no doubting the man’s talent.

Parents, I was about to say it is like any Marvel movie, but, to be fair, there are a lot of darker moments. That is all I will say. Middle School and above.

That is all I will say, because this is not a movie to read about. It is one to experience. And what an experience.

 

Overall: Five Stars *****

Molly’s Game (2017)

Molly's Game

In court, Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) with attourney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba)

With the exception of Tarantino, I can’t think of anyone who does electric dialogue like Aaron Sorkin, and it shows in his directorial debut, Molly’s Game. True, there is a good amount that is hard to follow, but it is so palpable that you can’t turn away from it.

Based off the book of the same name, the film tells the story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former Olympic skier who finds a way to make money by hosting poker games. The film splits between the story in the book (narrated by Bloom), and the events two years later after her arrest by the FBI. She searches for an attorney, and finds Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba).  Jaffey is only part way through her book, but when he decides to become her lawyer, he mentions how he now needs to finish it.

We see how Bloom’s life has been hard from the get go. A demanding father (a wonderful Kevin Costner) who was also her coach at a young age, he pushed her even after a disease required her to have spinal surgery at the age of 12. It is only after an accident of pure chance during the Olympic qualifying rounds that her skiing days are truly over.

At first, I thought the narration by Chastain was a little too much, but I realized how essential it was. I have played a good amount of poker games in my life (not professionally), but the film reminded me how little I knew about the game in general (mainly the terms I never heard of).

For privacy sake, Bloom decides not to mention the real names of any of the players (who range from hollywood stars to politicians), though there has been speculation as to who they are. Some include Player X (Michael Cera), one of the best around, and Brad (Brian d’Arcy James), who still manages to make money even when he is one of the worst players imaginable.

The tension between Elba and Chastain is some of the best non-romantic chemistry I have seen in an acting duo in some time. It is like a game of ping-pong with words. It is no wonder that the real Molly Bloom said she wanted Chastain to play her.

Parents, the movie is rated R mainly for swearing (and there is a lot of it). There is no sex or nudity, but the female characters do wear a lot of revealing clothing. There is also one scene of a violent assault. High School and above.

Perhaps what I liked most about the movie was the character traits of Molly. She is not the type we would associate with as a villain. She needs to make money, but (for the most part) does so in a near ethical way. We know there were some slip ups, but her heart is in the right place. Thankfully, the same could be same for Sorkin.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

The Dark Tower (2017)

The Dark Tower

Idris Elba is the last of the gunslingers fighting to protect “The Dark Tower”.

When the credits began to roll at the end of The Dark Tower, I found myself eager to start reading the books. Sadly, it was not because the movie intrigued me (far from it). Instead, I need now to know if, during the process from page to screen, something was lost in translation (if not much more).

I can safely assume the book has valuable source material (I mean, it is Stephen King we are talking about), so how can a movie like The Dark Tower crumble so? First off, I could hardly accept Matthew McConaughey (undoubtably talented) as Walter (or, as he is known, the man in black). It is true that a lot of villains need a certain “charm” (think of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in the MCU), but the notes don’t strike the right tone for McConaughey. He is just too likable a guy, I think. His Walter is out to destroy The Dark Tower, which will allow monsters into the universe. The only thing standing in his way (along with his almost superfluous team of…I will just call them geeks for the sake of time) is the last gunslinger, Roland (Idris Elba). Roland is able to fend off Walter’s magic (unlike Roland’s father, a small part played by big talent Dennis Haysbert), and also stumbles upon a new player, the young Jake (Tom Taylor). Jake is having dreams of the gunslinger and the man in black, but his mom (Katheryn Winnick) and step dad (Nicholas Pauling) feel he is just losing it after the death of his father.

Any movie that is adapted from other written material always has two audiences to play to: those that have experienced the written work, and those that haven’t. Perhaps the biggest mistake that The Dark Tower makes is that it focuses more on the former audience members and not the latter ones. Movies are always better at entertaining than they are informing us. In the case of The Dark Tower, it has neither going for it.

Parents, there are some parts of violence and swearing (no sex or nudity), so I would say middle school and up would be ok.

I walked away feeling sorry for those who made the movie, from director Nikolaj Arcel and young star Tom Taylor (who does seem to do ok as a young actor) to screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (who has done worse…cough, Batman & Robin!, cough!) Still, I feel the audience deserves the most of the apologies, because they could have seen something new and exciting, but got something bland, convoluted, and uninspired.

 

Overall: One and a Half Stars * 1/2

The Jungle Book (2016)

THE JUNGLE BOOK

Mowgli and Baloo on a relaxing river ride.

I grew up in the 1990s, so all the classic Disney movies I had were on VHS (much thanks to my wonderful parents). Therefore, I grew up on the animated version of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, so I was not sure what I was really expecting. All I knew was that it had great potential with the cast, and that last year’s Cinderella was a very good remake.

Once again, Disney scores rather big with another live action version. Directed by Jon Favreau (who made Elf and the first two Iron Man films, among others), it is one of the very few remakes to not only pay tribute to the original, but stand on its own. When I heard it was all made in a studio in Los Angeles, my respect grew even more.

For those who don’t know the story (which is unlikely), The Jungle Book tells the tale of a “man-cub” named Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi, in a very fine debut). He is raised by wolves (voiced by Giancarlo Esposito and Lupita Nyong’o) and is also cared after by a panther named Bagheera (the always perfect Ben Kingsley). With Bagheera, Mowgli must go back to the man villiage before he is killed by the sadistic tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba). There is also Baloo the Bear (Bill Murray), who becomes Mowgli’s best friend, the giant serpent Kaa (seductivly played by Scarlett Johanson,) and King Louie the giant ape (that fantastic actor known as Christopher Walken).

I now look back at some of the casting from the 1967 animated film. King Louie was voiced by Louis Prima, and his song “I wanna be like you” is one I am not afraid to admit is still on my phone. Still, Walken had me cracking up, and his rendition was his own (including some new lyrics). Anyone who knows the animated film knows the theme song of “The Bare Necessities” which I am still convinced no one should sing except Phil Harris. Nevertheless, few actors can conjur charm like Bill Murray, and his singing of the song almosted reminded me of his days back on SNL.

Yet of all the casting done in the live action version, my favorite would be Idris Elba as Shere Khan. The animated version had that wonderful actor George Sanders as the tiger (his voice was like that of Jeremy Irons, who of course was Scar in The Lion King), but Sanders’ Khan had very little screen time. This is not the case with the live action version. Every time Shere Khan was on-screen, I had that feeling that my hair on my arms may stand on end. That is not something that happens often with me when I see a villain, be it a Disney villian or not.

While all the actors are great, the CGI was impeccable. It reminded me  of when I was a kid, and thought all the animals were real in the classic film Babe (1995). I may get in trouble for this, but I thought the CGI in The Jungle Book was better than it was in Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. There I said it!

Parents, there is some scary parts, but it is the good type of scary parts for kids. They may hold on to your arms, but if your kids have seen at least one superhero flick before, they will be fine with this film.

The movie never says it out loud, but it does say how Mowgli has one thing no other animal in the jungle has: wit. That is what makes this film great. It has wit.

And fun. Lots of it.

Overall: Four Stars ****